“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” Psalm 90:12
I am a day-numberer. Whether I am counting the sleeps until I see my sister or the anniversaries of obscure life events, I number the days.
I come by this honestly. My mom was a counter of all the things. Her favorite hobby was counted-cross stitch. She stayed awake while driving by counting cars and eating Cheerios and raisins as she reached multiples of 5 or 10. She used a clicker (like the one pictured here) to count parishioners as the filed into church on Sunday mornings. And evenings. And Mom relished the task of manually balancing her checkbook decades after the rest of us trusted online banking to take care of that.
As my sister and I read through her diaries and notebooks, we find lists and tallies of various things: how many pies she’d made in a year, the churches and events she sang solos for, Dad’s pastoral visits. Everything counted. My sister and I are still not 100% sure what the numbers mean in the margins of her diary. Next to each day, she writes a number. On Saturdays, the number is circled. We’re pretty sure these are minutes of exercise. But they might be minutes she spent counted cross-stitching! Whatever it was, it counted.
Inspired by Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts, Mom went back through her lifetime of diaries, reading them over and writing in a separate notebook a list of everything she was thankful for. Counting her blessings (she got up to 850). Naming them one by one.
You can imagine how much my mom enjoyed having a Fitbit. I never wore one myself until after she died, and I decided to take hers home with me. I began to wear it and became quite obsessed with my sleep score, my steps, my activity minutes. On the rare occasion, I would accidentally leave my Fitbit charging while taking a long walk. All day long, I would fret over those uncounted steps—tempted to re-do the walk with the Fitbit.
In October of last year, my Fitbit died in a blaze of glory. Instead of winking and blinking, the pulsometer shone a steady blinding light and falsely counted up hundreds of activity points while I was sitting quietly in my living room. Rebooting the thing did not fix it. It was gone. Turns out the life expectancy of a Fitbit is only a couple of years. Its days were numbered.
Initially I was going get a new one, but then I decided, No. It was time to stop counting. I had become a slave to the numbers and was finding too much of my self-definition in them.
Biblically speaking, there is nothing wrong with counting things and people and days and years (until sometimes there is – 2 Samuel 24 / 1 Chronicles 21). In fact, a few years ago while in the Middle East on a study tour with Under the Fig Tree, I learned something beautiful about the Hebrew language of census-taking.
Before we got on the tour bus one morning, our leader George De Jong said we were going to do a different kind of head count. Instead of our regular small-group buddy-system check-in, George approached each one of us, took our faces in his hands, looked into our eyes, and one by one, gently uttered a number: “One… Two… Three…” This is the way he counted us. He told us that the Hebrew idiom for “take a census of the people” is “lift up the heads of the people.” When George counted us in this way, each person felt special. Each one of us counted.
I think this image is a good bridge to the psalmist’s prayer that the Lord teach us to number our days… not in the way of simple tabulation, but in the way of recognition and gracious lifting.
Too often, I count time (and accomplishments) more in the way of accumulation and pride and less in the way of consideration and gratitude. The day-numbering of Psalm 90 is a prayer that we might hold and release the fleeting gift of life, and in so doing, find our hearts made wiser.
Yesterday was my 47th birthday. As I prepared to celebrate the day and to write this blog, I paged through my underlinings in James K.A. Smith’s book, How to Inhabit Time. I found in his writing an invitation to rejoice in my age, my numbered days, even my mortality.
To resent mortality is a mark of hubris. When we resent our own mortality, we resent the fact that what is given is not eternal. Then, all too often, we try to fabricate eternity: we cling and dig in our claws, refusing to let go. The irony is that we lose in grasping. Sometimes it is precisely when we try to seize and freeze what is passing that we abjure our creaturehood and lose something that is right in front of us. (97)
Smith goes on:
To live mortally, we might say, is to receive gifts by letting go, finding joy in the fleeting present. This is temporal contentment: to inhabit time with eyes wide open, hands outstretched, not to grasp but to receive, enjoy, and let go. Sometimes knowing this won’t last forever compels us to hold hands in the present. (100)
Whatever our relationship with counting, may we number our days aright – receiving rather than grasping. And instead of merely tabulating, lifting and considering with open hands and a grateful heart.
Header Photo: Philippe de Champaigne, Still-Life With a Skull, Public Domain